Christmas came early this year in Dublin, but too late for a beloved adopted son.
On the last evening in November, a wet Thursday, cars at the rush hour stoplights blared Fairytale of New York on a thousand radios. From the sidewalk, you could hear drivers and passengers singing along: The boys from the NYPD choir still singing Galway Bay, and the bells were ringing out for Christmas Day.
The songs renowned lyricist and co-writer, Shane MacGowan, the British-born frontman of the punk-folk band the Pogues, had died that day. Ireland his greatest muse, and ancestral home was coming to terms with a death that had, thanks to MacGowans well-known addictions to alcohol and drugs, long been foretold.
MacGowan would have turned 66 if he had lived to his next birthday Christmas Day, the subject of Fairytale of New York, the Pogues greatest hit, in which an elderly Irish couple berate and console each other for lives gone to seed in a soured Big Apple.
On South William Street in Dublins city center, a gaggle of young women, dressed for a night out, sang Fairytale as they rushed through freezing rain to a nearby pub. Student nurses at St. Vincents Hospital, from which MacGowan was discharged last week after a long illness, said they had heard news of his death at work that morning.
We all just started singing Fairytale of New York, and we got very emotional, said Eve McCormack, 22.
He was fantastic, her friend Sophie McEvoy, 21, said. We hoped he might make it, because Christmas is his birthday. But not this time, I suppose.
Leah Barry, 37, a social worker, was having a predinner drink nearby at Grogans pub on Castle Street, one of the last holdouts of an older, more bohemian Dublin. She grew emotional as she talked about her favorite Pogues songs, A Pair of Brown Eyes, about a broken veteran of a nameless war, and Rainy Night in Soho, a bruised and tender love song.
I was with a group of Irish students going off to America, Barry recalled, and we bought a compilation album of Irish songs at Dublin Airport on the way out. Thats how I fell in love with the Pogues. Whenever I hear those songs, I think of five of us in the one bedroom in Montauk, having a mad summer.
Across the River Liffey at the Cobblestone pub, a famous venue for Irish traditional musicians, an old-school session was in full swing in the front bar: guitars, tin whistle, fiddles, uilleann bagpipes and bodhrán, a traditional goatskin drum. In the early 1980s, the Pogues gate-crashed this genre with a London-Irish swagger, subverting its pieties with punk vigor and venom. To its old tropes and titles The Boys from the County Cork, The Boys from the County Mayo, The Boys from the County Armagh MacGowan added his own variations, like The Boys from the County Hell, with lyrics that showcased his scabrous humor and diaspora-wide vision.
Born in the county of Kent, near London, to Irish parents, MacGowan first came to music through the citys punk scene, then found his lifelong inspiration in the dark poetry of his ancestral homeland, and in particular the Irish diaspora in the United States (Body of an American, Fairytale of New York), Britain (Rainy Night in Soho, and many more), Australia (a cover of The Band Played Waltzing Matilda) and even Mexico (A Pistol for Paddy Garcia).
Far from being offended by MacGowans irreverence, most people in Ireland loved him for it.
On guitar at the Cobblestone traditional session Thursday night was Colm OBrien, a Dublin-born musician now living in Boston.
My own personal opinion is that we are only going to realize his genius in the next decades, OBrien said. He introduced people to Irish music who wouldnt have heard it otherwise, even Irish people. People who were young and who were punk and wouldnt have listened.
Tomás Mulligan, the 33-year-old son of the Cobblestones owner, Tom Mulligan, said MacGowan had inspired his own musical project, a punk-folk collective called Ispíní na hÉireann (Sausages of Ireland).
Every Irish trad musician went through a phase when they were young, when their parents forced them to play the old music and then they rebelled, Mulligan said. But then they came back to it. It was the Pogues who brought me back to it.
As Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote in The Leopard, If we want things to stay as they are, everything will have to change. John Francis Flynn, a rising star of the Irish folk scene, expressed a similar thought over a drink in the back of the Cobblestone.
Most good traditional artists have two things in common, Flynn said: a real respect for the source material, but also having an urge to do something new with it. MacGowan opened a door into Irish music for people who might have thought it would be twee.
What trad songs do is, they are almost like a time machine, Flynn said. You can connect with people who are long gone, and with history.
MacGowans work was romantic, but it was real and it was honest. It wasnt simple, he added. And it was sometimes brutal.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times